A free clinic will provide services to hundreds of people who need teeth cleaning and other dental care on Friday and Saturday.
The Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh event is one of the few free dental clinics in the country that takes place at the same location each year. Although the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizers to cancel the clinic last year, they said the lack of access to quality dental care is a persistent problem.
“Without the care they need, small dental problems become bigger dental problems,” said Dr Daniel W. Pituch, chief of oral and maxillofacial surgery at UPMC Mercy and UPMC Shadyside. .
People who don’t have access to regular dental care often find themselves in a hospital emergency room when their problem becomes too painful to ignore.
“They are relieved from the pain, they are treated temporarily, but the emergency department and the hospital are not really set up or adapted to provide definitive dental care,” Pituch said. “And so these patients might be okay for now, but without access to definitive dental care, they risk it happening again. And we see it. “
In one year, Pituch said, UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside has handled more than 3,000 dental emergency room visits from patients who have no other means of accessing dental care. Parts of Pennsylvania, especially rural areas, have fewer dentists and more barriers to accessing dental care.
Some organizations, such as Mission of Mercy (a separate nonprofit) and MOM-n-PA are crossing the state to offer free dental care in places where such care might otherwise be difficult for people to access. They reach individual cities once every few years. But Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh hosts an event in Pittsburgh every year.
Organizers said the need for the clinic had increased since the program began in 2017. In their first year, they served 885 patients over the course of two days. In 2019, that number rose to 1,302.
Many people who attend the clinic do not have dental insurance, said Keith Young, president of A Call to Care, which sponsors Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh. Others have quotas that are too high for them, he added.
“These are a lot of people who have limited incomes and sometimes have to make a decision between ‘Am I feeding the children or do I have my teeth cut?’ “
Young said the pandemic has exacerbated access and affordability issues for many people. According to a report from the nonprofit research and advocacy group CareQuest Institute for Oral Health, more than six million Americans lost their dental insurance during the pandemic. Others have delayed care for the past 18 months.
Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh officials said they suspected the number of patients seeking services this year may exceed totals from previous years. Over 1,300 dentists, clinicians, nurses and other volunteers have registered to work at the event.
“Teeth are part of overall health,” said Pituch. “It’s not really about aesthetics or beautiful smiles anymore. It’s about overall health and making sure that you don’t have global sources of contaminating your blood with bad teeth, periodontal disease, and places where bacteria can enter deeper tissue.
If left untreated, certain bacteria in the mouth can trigger endocarditis and other problems in some people, he noted.
Young said the psychological benefits of dental treatment are equally important for patients.
“In fact, many patients have told us that when they get their teeth fixed, they have more confidence in themselves,” he said. “There is the physical side, but there is also this personal side. “
The clinic offers dental exams, cleanings, restorative fillings, extractions, some root canals and other dental care to people 2 years of age and older, all at no cost. There are no eligibility or income assessment conditions. Patients are cared for on a first come, first served basis.
All patients are required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or must take a rapid COVID-19 test at the event, which takes place at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown; the doors open at 6 am on both days. Find more information here.